With Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine at a grim two-year anniversary, it might be necessary to supplement the geopolitical commentaries of pundits and technical analyses of military experts with something much less common, and definitely more puzzling, from the standpoint of a secular modern perspective. I mean the now commonplace invocations of the devil in Russian public discursive field.

Right away, it bears mentioning that Russian ideologues, propagandists, and officials are not the first in recent history to associate political enemies with the devil. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini developed an elaborate satanology, a system of classifying various regimes considered to be inimical to Iran in terms of their embodiment of the devil. So, the United States was proclaimed “the great Satan” (Shaytân-e Bozorg); the Soviet Union was termed “the lesser Satan”; and the State of Israel was dubbed “little Satan.” While such terms may be expected of a radically theocratic regime, such as Iran, they have also been part of the vocabulary in other authoritarian political systems. Famously, speaking at the UN General Assembly in September 2006, one day after George W. Bush, Hugo Chávez proclaimed, while making a sign of the cross: “And the devil came here yesterday. Yesterday the devil came here. Right here. And it smells of sulfur still today.” In his turn, George W. Bush referred to Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as “the axis of evil,” putting political enmity in ethical terms, bordering on the theological.

Since 2022, Russia’s stated goals pertaining to the invasion of Ukraine have been constantly shifting, ambiguous as they had been all along. After the initial calls to demilitarize and denazify the neighboring country, the discourse has become more and more religious: the war that is still not allowed to be called by its name in Russia and that goes under the euphemism “special military operation” has been cast as a “sacred battle” at the highest level of government. Absurd as it sounds, a sacred special military operation is a good expression of the actual absurdity of the entire endeavor, which has brought misery and death to hundreds of thousands of people. It is also now redefined as a fight against the Satan by Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, by the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, and, increasingly, by Russian TV propagandists and even in songs.

For instance, in January 2024, at the official concert in Moscow marking one hundred years since Lenin’s death, Ian Ossin performed the song “Rise, O Country!” by M. Lazarev, which included the lines: “Rise, O country to wage a mortal battle / Since we are facing Satan!” In the same song, Russia is dubbed “a holy power” and is reassured that “your God is always with you.” The official news agency RIA Novosti carries articles, such as the screed by Kirill Strel’nikov, titled “To Achieve Victory over Russia, the West Has Called up the Devil.” There is little in this text to substantiate the title, except an extensive quote from the author’s namesake, Patriarch Kirill, who interprets the special military operation as “a metaphysical struggle.” “We should remember,” the Russian Orthodox Patriarch adds, “that our current battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the princes of darkness of this century, against the evil spirits.” Elsewhere, he is more blatant that that, proclaiming: “Instructed by today’s divine word, we must protect our inner sovereignty from enslavement by the devil.”

One of the chief ideologues of the Putin regime, Aleksandr Dugin, has tried to associate Volodymyr Zelenskyy with the devil via an obscure medieval system of beliefs. Recalling that Zelenskyy began his career as an actor and a comedian, Dugin asserted: “In the Middle Ages, actors were considered ‘servants of the devil’.” His conclusion? “Humor must be stopped.” Although he occasionally draws inspiration from twentieth-century German jurist and political philosopher, Carl Schmitt, Dugin does not follow up the Schmittian analysis of political theology, that is, of how apparently secular political categories such as sovereignty are traceable back to theological concepts. Rather, he aims to institute a theological politics, very much in line with the Iranian regime, which has been a close ally of Putin’s Russia. References to the devil are part of that transition, striving to reach the boiling point of a political standoff by a direct politicization of religious representations. But the most interesting aspect of his comment has to do with the invocation of humor.

In psychoanalytic terms, humor is one of the royal roads to the unconscious, along with dreams, slips of tongue and other “psychopathologies of everyday life.” What is usually repressed peers through jokes, especially where repression has not only a psychological but also a political character: in authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, humor is one of the few, relatively tolerated outlets for pent-up feelings of discontent. Lashing against humor and “humorists,” Dugin is actually railing against the unconscious. The invocations of the devil paradoxically become clearer in this context.

Freud’s 1920 work Beyond the Pleasure Principle indicates that the devil or “demonic force” is a personification of the unconscious itself. The struggle against the devil is a figurative fight against unconscious impulses and desires; it is my standoff between me and myself, as other to myself. In this vein, Patriarch Kirill’s otherwise mystifying appeal to “protect our inner sovereignty from enslavement by the devil” becomes rather transparent: “inner sovereignty” is the full egoic control, or self-control, as opposed to “enslavement by the devil,” which implies doing the bidding of the unconscious. The devil is the despised aspect of oneself, of the deepest parts of one’s own psychic constitution, which is then externalized and projected onto a reviled other. And this projection, in the clinical case presented by the Russian authorities, is not only externalized onto the Ukrainian and Western other, but also onto individuals and entire groups within Russian society, for instance, the recently murdered opposition leader Alexei Navalny and LGBTQ+ people.

For years now, Putin’s regime has been criminalizing everyone practicing “non-traditional” sexual relations, pathologizing trans individuals, and labeling LGBTQ+ people “Satan’s messengers.” Well before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, claimed that gay people “are not people,” that “they are devils,” and that they ought to be removed from the region “to purify our blood.” Now, these genocidal views have received the broadest platform in Russia. While the association of anyone outside the heterosexual norm with the “decadent West” was prevalent in the Soviet Union where for decades homosexuality was criminalized, the imputation of satanism to sexual minorities is relatively new there. It is of a piece with the war on the unconscious, on desire, along with everything and everyone associated with these facets of psychic life.

It would be easy to dismiss Russian “devil-talk” as a mere subterfuge, an arbitrary justification for the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and clampdown on inner political opponents. Nonetheless, the persistent invocations of the devil are symptomatic of what is going on in Russian domestic and foreign politics alike: the most severe repression, often explicitly related to the Stalinist repressions of the 1930s but actually having more in common with the fires of the Inquisition, is gathering steam along political, cultural, and psychological axes. The severity of this repression can hardly be underestimated, seeing that it is bent on repressing even the oblique channels for repressed materials, such as humor. The unconscious as such is deemed impure here, and the “absolute victory,” which the regime wishes for itself, entails the purging of the unconscious as a whole, just as in Robespierre’s France “the corruption of human spirit” by matter as a whole was to be denounced.

Paradoxically portraying itself as the last bastion of genuine Europe, in keeping with Dugin’s doctrine of Eurasianism, Russia sees itself engaged in the same project as the old European Enlightenment, albeit not in the name of pure reason, but under the aegis of a special Russian spirituality, or Russkiy Mir, “the Russian World.” A radically secular strand of Enlightenment rationality and the heavily theological invocations of divine truth share their uncompromising fight against the unconscious and the nontransparent, buttressed by demands of absolute transparency or conformity to the psycho-political ideal. Old Gnostic threads run through both of these maximalist positions, privileging pure spirit over matter.

One implication of the highest pitches that “devil-talk” is reaching in Russia has to do with a framing of the war in Ukraine—the framing applicable to both sides. When the current war is presented as the fight of light against darkness, or as the conflict of the good with absolute evil, it is moralized, theologized, Gnosticized (and to some extent Hollywoodized). These framings of the war may, indeed, carry some motivational force, but, ultimately and often unbeknownst to themselves, they subscribe to the program of purging the unconscious, which symptomatically marks contemporary Russian politics. Ukraine is indeed caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, as a colloquial expression goes, but there is no need to see the situation through the lens of theological politics. Above all, because there are no winners in the last stand against the unconscious.